mending sibling relationships

You’ve likely seen a movie with this storyline: the cast of characters descend on the family home as the holidays near. Tensions rise over certain relationships – oftentimes, with siblings.

Unfortunately, these scenes are all too familiar in real life. And while maintaining sibling relationships is easy for some – an extension of good times together, it can be a challenge for many of us. No, we can’t pick our family, but there are good reasons to continue to share our lives with our siblings.

Siblings are our longest lasting contacts and connections to our past. Shared time starts in our youngest years and usually continues after our parents are gone. Even our oldest friends are unlikely to have been around for that duration. Sisters and brothers contribute to making us who we are. The interaction we experience growing up in the same household influences our behavior, values and personality. Continuing these lifelong relationships can add substantially to our life as we age. They are part of our ‘safety net’ of people who we can count on to care about us, be there for us, and share memories with us.

Something often overlooked is how siblings maintain the continuance of family. When we lose our sibling relationships, we are also depriving our children of the caring comfort of their family. A couple of years ago, a brother and sister came to me inquiring about mediation services for their parents and an aunt and uncle who had a falling out. They no longer had Thanksgiving and other holidays together and these young adults missed occasions with their cousins. People often try to substitute friends at holidays but find the experience lacking family traditions, history, and reminiscences that only generations of family can provide.

For those who have fractured or strained relationships, restoring them is difficult but not impossible. It takes work, a conscious effort, and needs perspective. For one, you no longer live together. Some of the behavior and issues that made it hard to live together are lessened by distance. If you can let go of past disagreements, you give yourself the opportunity to forge new bonds and positive experiences that can distance the past ones. As adults, it may be too late to work out what has festered over decades; this is the time to move forward and create an adult sibling relationship.

First, accept your brother (or sister) for who he is; that is what you must work with. Part of your reconciliation planning is to recognize his good traits. If you do not deal with acceptance of who he is, you will only be setting up the next explosive situation.

If a long time has passed since your last contact, getting in touch can be intimidating. Start with a heartfelt, written invitation to avoid either of you reacting during a call. A woman I know invited her sister to an event where she was performing with a choir. She told her sister how much it would mean for her to be there. She was pleasantly surprised when her sister accepted. The evening required just the right amount of interaction for her to express delight that she came while not leaving enough time for a discussion of the past, making it easier to meet the next time. If your outreach is rejected, perhaps a get-together with other family members might work. Just trying a few times might be enough to convince your sibling of your sincerity.

If you feel more comfortable calling, have a list of former trigger points to stay away from. You are now adults and have different life experiences that you can share, such as parenting, grandparenting, or careers. Make sure the conversation does not devolve into a competition but is kept to kindly sharing parts of your life. If a subject is touched on that provokes an emotion, ask her why she feels that way? Asking indicates caring and is more likely to elicit a positive response. Dwelling on the past only defeats the present and the future. Did you both share a favorite movie growing up or have a teacher in common that you really disliked? That’s an icebreaker. Focus on that memory and experience, and laugh about it.

Once you have that first conversation, schedule another one and make it a routine. Make the renewed contact an active part of your life. Remember, your siblings are not just your relations. Give yourself and your immediate family the gift of family and creating memories.

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